9(2), April 1992, pages 87-94

Analysis, File Sharing, and Freestanding Computers:
An "Exigential" Sequence

Douglas Hesse

Writing strategies and word-processing features are best learned when students meet exigencies that invoke them, when the need to use a technique is embedded within a task rather than presented nakedly. That's the main premise of a modest assignment sequence that has students engage three interconnected problems of writing and word processing. Ideally, of course, students would generate their own exigencies, unilaterally defining tasks that stretch their writing repertories. But the very ability to do so would signify a kind of writerly sophistication that students almost by definition cannot have; such idealized students would be at the beginning where we'd hope them at the end. For at least half of a first-year writing course, it makes sense for teachers to create rich exigencies, even impure ones.

One strategic problem this sequence raises is how to analyze and interpret narrated experience. Students confronted with tasks such as "tell about something that happened to you and tell us what it means" often respond with thin, Aesopean fable-like essays: "I learned never to drink and drive again," or "Honesty is the best policy." Reasonably, students haven't yet internalized rich heuristics for writing The Personal Essay. One process for doing so--reading and exploring far more personal essays than the handful of examples in the reader--consumes more time than the single required writing class might justify. The task is more effectively recast two ways. First, rather than emphasizing a genre, the personal essay, it is more productive to have student writers focus on the broader activities of interpreting and using a certain kind of knowledge or data, lived experience, that differs from other kinds of knowledge or data in its form and rhetorical import. Second, because it is difficult for students to analyze and interpret their own experience--their speculative lenses are often monocular--it is more productive to have them view their experience in the context of others' experience. In plain terms, they can see more through the heuristic of "compare and contrast" than through the hermeneutic of "interpret."

Next, this sequence challenges students to integrate data not only from various sources and media, student experience, as I have discussed above, but also from course readings. The problem is both broadly analytical and presentational. Students must learn to use readings to challenge, confirm, or re-direct their analyses of experience and, crucially, vice-versa. In addition, they must learn how to report those confirmations and redirections. By having students write about reading and by asking them occasionally to take a meta-view of what's going on in class, the sequence is designed to produce a fertile chaos. Much of the teacher's work consists of giving advice and options for how to proceed at appropriate junctures. In a world unbounded by time, a wholly inductive approach might be more defensible, but sixteen-week terms mandate at least some top-down interventions.

Finally, the sequence creates a reason for learning how to manipulate computer files and parts of files. The publication of this article in Computers and Composition notwithstanding, I've saved this point for last to reflect what I hope students will realize, specifically, that word-processing features were developed substantially to expedite real writing operations. (I don't deny that the arrow can point the other way, too, with technology influencing writing.) In this case, the ability to manipulate easily files and large chunks of text is instrumental for developing the strategic skills I described in the two paragraphs above.

A few more contextual remarks before I present (finally!) the assignments. The sequence was written as the second one, beginning in week four of an English 101 course at Illinois State University. English 101 is a course in writing nonfiction public discourse and has a substantial writing about reading component; the textbook for all first-time graduate teaching assistants is Robert Atwan's Our Times/2: Readings from Recent Periodicals. All sections of every writing course at Illinois State University are computer-assisted. In the English 101 classrooms, there is one Zenith 286 computer, with one hard drive and one floppy drive, and one dot matrix printer for each student; all faculty and graduate teaching assistants have similar computers in their offices. Class size is limited to 21 students, who learn WORDPERFECT 4.2 at the beginning of the semester, and who outside of class time have access to the ten computer classrooms and seven similarly-equipped labs across campus. Although all classrooms are scheduled to be networked, both locally and globally into the university system, the computers currently are freestanding.

The sequence below was written for a three-day per week class. All statements in quotation marks are "camera ready" as I would present them, in writing, to students. Other statements are "teacher-planning language" directed to myself.

Day 1

[In the previous class, students were reminded to bring their textbooks to class.]

  1. Discuss the title of Eisler's "Our Lost Heritage: New Facts on How God Became a Man." Invite students to speculate on the meaning of the title and share some reactions.

  2. "I'd like you to read the first part of the essay, to the page break on page 376. What surprises--or disturbs, or excites--you most in this first section? Why? I'd like you to explain your responses in a file named with your first name, the initial of your last name, a period, and 2A (for exercise 2A). My file would be named DougH.2A."

  3. "Use the last ten minutes of the class to write two short pieces, also in the file FirstL.2A. (Yes, this is too short a time to do serious work, so blurt bravely and with impunity.) First, explain the title of Eisler's piece, as best you can, to someone who hasn't read it. Second, speculate on how different types of readers will respond to this article. How do you think the women in the class will respond? The men? People you like? People you don't like? Please hand in all of your writings."

  4. Introduce Exercise B: Assignment for Day Two.
    "Think of a particular time in the past few days--the more recent, the better--that you spent with a group of people of your own gender. (If you're male, think of an afternoon or evening spent with a group of men, a group of friends, for example, or people who live near you. If you're female, think of time spent with a group of women.) Describe that occasion. The challenge here is to recall as much detail as possible. Where did this experience take place? Why? What did you do? Who was there? What did you talk about? Can you recall specific bits of conversation or specific topics? What are/were they like? What was your part? These are only a few questions you might use to get started. Include anything that comes to mind about this experience. Your object should be to create the fullest, most detailed story you can. I'll have you share a copy of this writing with others in the class. Name your file like this: DougH.2B (your first name and initial of your last name followed by a period and then 2B, the unit and exercise)."

Day 2

  1. a. "Begin today by copying your writing onto everyone else's disk. First copy your file onto your hard drive. Then, pass your disk to the left. When you get a disk, copy your FirstL.2B file from the hard drive onto the disk in the floppy drive. Then pass your classmate's disk to the left. Continue the process until you have copied your file onto everyone's disk and you have received your own back."

    b. "Create a new file named Men. Read into Men the FirstL.2B documents of all the males in the class. Then create a file named Women. Read all of the women's documents into this file."

    c. "Do some organizational editing on each file. Add headings or spacings, move blocks around, or do whatever else you need to do in order to make Men and Women easy for you to use."

  2. "The handout I've given you contains some class responses to Eisler's essay. I've grouped the responses by their author's gender. Do these groupings make sense, based on what people have written and how they have written it? Or is this entirely an artificial division? Do the responses tend to confirm or challenge your predictions at the end of the last class? Keep this handout. You may find it and these questions useful as you draft the unit paper, which I'll assign next time."

  3. Introduce Exercise C: Assignment for Day Three.

    "Analyze the Men and Women files you created in class today. Write about each of the following questions. To do a good job, you'll probably need to write several paragraphs on each."

    1. "Concentrate on the file for your own gender. Which other occasion is most like your own? Which is least?"

    2. "Do the experiences (or several of them, anyway) have anything in common?"

    3. "Concentrate on the file for the opposite gender. Which experiences match your expectations? Which do you find most surprising?"

    4. "Do the experiences (or several of them, anyway) have anything in common?"

    5. "How might you meaningfully group several of the experiences in a way other than by gender?

    Name this file using our "name" convention, i.e., FirstL.2C."

Day 3

  1. "In small groups today, please discuss your responses to questions b, c, d, and e from Exercise C. Select one person as recorder. This person should take careful notes of the whole conversation. The group should work to synthesize their responses for a report to the entire class later this hour. The group doesn't have to reach unanimity."

  2. Introduce Exercise D: Assignment for Day 4.

    "Read "Twice an Outsider." Write a summary of this essay. Then, either a) write a response to question 4 or b) develop a response from one of the annotations you made while reading."

  3. Introduce Unit Paper assignment: This assignment is due at the end of week 3.
    "Physically, men and women are different. That's a given. But are there other important gender differences between men and women--in what they think and do, for example? Conventional wisdom and a fair amount of theory and research suggest the answer is 'yes,' but you may, in fact, be able convincingly to answer 'no.' To develop your position on this question, draw upon your experiences and those of people in this class as you have analyzed and discussed them. Also, draw upon readings in the textbook. You may, of course, bring whatever else you wish to bear in developing your answer, but don't ignore the data from the class. One piece of advice: Your paper will likely be most effective if you concentrate on a single issue or a cluster of very closely related ones rather than listing a number of disconnected observations. Imagine that your readers are the readers of one of the publications from which the Our Times essays were taken."

Day 4

  1. "Open the file from Exercise D. Block the section containing your response and read it into a new file, named FirstL.2D2. I'm going to have you share this file with several other readers in the class, so do whatever last minute editing you'd like."

  2. Have students copy their FirstL.2D2 files onto one anothers' disks, using the directions from day 2. These files provide futher information that might be analyzed and used in the paper.

  3. Present briefly, with examples, how to blend ideas or information from readings with the report and analysis of experience.

  4. In-class drafting and conferencing.

Day 5

Draft 1 of Unit Paper due.

  1. "Take five minutes to write about your draft. First, explain what you tried to do. Explain strategies or procedures you used, and tell what you think has gone well with the paper so far. Also explain what you wish were going better. Name your file whatever you'd like. Then, on the back of your draft, write a question that you would like others in your group to answer when they read it."

  2. "Meet in groups of four. Pass papers one person to the left. Working individually and writing at your computer, explain the strategies or procedures the author seemed to be using and comment on what you think has gone well with the paper so far. Then, explain what else you'd like to see done with this paper. Finally, try to jot a response to the question on the back of the draft. Keep exchanging papers until you've had a chance to write about all of them."

  3. "In your groups, briefly discuss what members wrote about each of the papers. You might do this by reading from your comments on each. Authors should share comments about their own papers last. Before you leave, give copies of your comments to their respective authors. Don't worry; they will be as tolerant of your rushed remarks as you will be of theirs."

Day 6

Draft 2 of Unit Paper due.

  1. "Read eight or nine drafts straight through. Jot down notes about qualities of the papers you think are going pretty well. Together as a class we'll try to generate criteria for what you think a good paper will be for this assignment.

  2. Introdue Exercise E: Assignment for Day 7.
    "Read "Dangerous Parties." You'll notice that Keegan shifts back and forth between distant and more recent events and between the narrative of Sarah's rape and his commentary on it. Summarize the events of this essay in chronological order. Then consider why Keegan chose the order he did. What effects does he achieve by avoiding chronological order?"

  3. Collect drafts for reading over the weekend.

Day 7

  1. Return drafts with comments and present strategies for dealing with some organizational or developmental problems, using parts of a few drafts as examples.

  2. Discuss "Dangerous Parties." [This is an article about date rape.] Begin with question: "What do you think of "Ogre," who is described on page 218 of the essay? Have you seen "Ogre-like" characters portrayed in the media? How are we to take them?" At the end of class, have students write about the discussion, paying particular attention to who said what and how--and what might have been said in a different context or among a different group of people."

Day 8

  1. Discuss any "surface problems" common to several drafts: problems in documenting format or common surface errors, for example.

  2. Spend the rest of the time conferring with individual students as they work at the computer.

[Note: Days 8 and 9 I typically begin activities to introduce the next assignment sequence.]

Day 9

Unit Paper, final draft due.

  1. "Write a commentary on the process of completing this assignment. Did you learn anything about the topic? About yourself or your classmates? About writing? About the computer? Can you think of other writing tasks that are similar to this one?"

Some Brief Last Comments about the Sequence

As with many computer activities, copying files from floppy disks to hard disks and back inevitably takes longer than you think it should, especially with glitches in the floppy disks. If you know your class well and it is reasonably diverse, you can cut time by having them garner files from ten other students rather than from the entire class. To do this most easily, arrange students in groups at adjacent computers--and long for the day the lab is networked.

Students may tend to see this particular assignment sequence as yet another tyrannizing instance of an English teacher "shoving this feminist stuff" at them. It's important, then, frequently to make explicit the general writing issues of interpretation, analysis, and integration at stake in this task. Having them reflect on the class and on their writing process (as I've indicated twice above) helps, as do brief teacher presentations on strategies and techniques, rather than content. A writing class must finally be a writing class, however crucial a position may be at stake. Any assignment that has everyone writing on the same topic risks browbeating some students into feigning interest, with the resultant cost to their success and class morale. When possible, if I am following a fairly tight sequence like this, I try to give students a choice between two tracks. Writing about gender, however, at least dangles the promise that all students will have some experiences and opinions from which to draw.

Douglas Hesse teaches in the Department of English at Illinois State University.


Atwan, R. (1991). Our times/2: Readings from recent periodicals. New York: St. Martin's Press.